#Womeninscience: Dr. Avital Hahamy

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#Womeninscience: Dr. Avital Hahamy


Dr. Avital Hahamy is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, studying how the human brain represents the world. Here she shares how her career has developed, the challenges she has faced and how she has overcome these. 

1. What do you research?

I research the human brain using non-invasive methods, including fMRI, to look at brain activity. During my PhD, I investigated what happens in the brain when we are at rest and not engaging in any activity; I found that while we rest, our brain is fully active. I discovered that this brain activity at rest reflects our daily behaviours, habits and trains. At rest, our brain habituates activity patterns that are usually evoked when we interact with our surroundings.

This discovery helped us research and improve our understanding of various clinical populations. By looking at individual’s brain activity at rest, abnormal activity can be identified. For example, I studied the brain activity of those born without a hand. I found that while these individuals simply rest and do not use their hands, their resting state brain activity reflects the fact that they don’t have a hand, and also reflects the level to which they use their residual arm for daily compensatory behaviours.

I also looked at the brains of people with developmental object agnosia. People with this disorder are unable to visually recognise objects (they can, however, use other means, such as touch, to recognise objects). Even when people with this disorder were at rest and had their eyes closed, their resting state activity in the parts of their brains responsible for vision, reflected the same abnormality as seen when they look at objects.

I also discovered that individuals with autism have atypical resting state brain activity. Individuals without autism have similar resting state patterns of activity to each other, whereas individuals with autism have very different patterns of brain activity to each other and to individuals without autism. These unique patterns reflect the severity of their autism symptoms.  

Although looking at resting state brain activity cannot yet be used to diagnose brain disorders, with further research, it may be used as a diagnostic tool in the future.

2. How has your career developed?

I completed my Batchelor’s degree in biology and psychology in Israel. Following this, I completed my Master’s degree and PhD at the Weizmann Institute, supervised by Professor Rafael Malach. I am now a Postdoc at UCL, in the lab of Prof. Tim Behrens, where I started a few months ago. 

Collaborations with other scientists were a major part of my development as a scientist. I travelled and collaborated with scientists in the UK, US and Germany. This exposure to other researchers brought me many opportunities and, as well as advancing my career, contributed to my scientific, professional and personal development. I learnt a lot, including how to do better science and what it is like to be a woman in science. I am still collaborating with the researchers I collaborated with during my PhD.

3. What support have your received throughout your career?

I have great support from family and friends. But my colleagues during my PhD have been an enormous source of support and have become my lifelong friends. Since we encountered similar challenges, we understood each other’s difficulties and needs, and were able to offer help in various domains, professionally and emotionally. Doing science is hard, but having a supportive environment helps you remember that the path you take and the learning you do is the most important thing. 

My PhD supervisor was very supportive, and I was very lucky to have a supervisor who is both an amazing scientist and a very kind man. Although he is very successful, he cares not only of scientific discoveries, but also of the people he supervises, and that is an amazing quality.

Also, my institute established a mentoring scheme for women doing PhDs, where they would be assigned a mentor who is a female PI. I was mentored by Prof. Lia Addadi, who provided me with huge support and helped me through some tough times.

Finally, all of the female scientists that I encountered during my PhD were very supportive, particularly Prof. Tamar Makin and Prof. Marlene Behrmann. I have been able to form bonds with these women who have previously been in the same situation as me and I feel lucky to have met them.   

4. What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome these?

I have faced many challenges on a professional level but have found that the most challenging part of my career has been becoming a mother. I had a child during my PhD, and she has transformed my life. When you don’t have children, you don’t have any time restraints and you can put more time into your work. Whereas, a child demands a lot of time, so naturally there is less time I can invest in my work. At first, I wanted to be the best mother I could be but also the best scientist I could be, with the same amount of time and resources I had before I had a child. I soon realised this isn’t possible! 

My role model for motherhood is my own mother, who had no career, and my scientific role model was my supervisor who is a man. Most male scientists I know put science first, but I didn’t want to feel like I’m more of a scientist than a mother –this required me to make compromises. The best advice that helped me is to first understand that both parts of my life are equally important. If I could create a balance between these two parts, I will be happy, and therefore my daughter will be happy. So although I have less time for science, I am happier; I have a better work-life balance and I learned to prioritise the important things in both my scientific and personal life. I am much more focused.  

5. How have you found working in research as a mother?

There are pros and cons to working in research as a mother. A pro is flexibility. For example, if my daughter is sick, I can be at home and do not have to take a sick day or a holiday. 

A con is that the scientific world is very competitive, and mother scientists are competing with people who do not split their time between work and family. That can be intimidating and sometimes exhausting.

6. What challenges do you think women face when working and progressing in academia?

As I mentioned before, it can be hard to balance life when you have children. Plus, it can be hard to compete with male colleagues and colleagues who don’t have children as you have less time to dedicate to work than they do. In comparison to these colleagues, I don’t work evenings and weekends, so I have less time to do science. This can be a challenge. Conferences are also more difficult to attend when you have children. These challenges are also true for male scientists who are as involved with children as I am. For example, my husband is also a scientist, and since we share responsibilities, he also faces similar challenges to mine. 

In addition, academia sometimes feels like it has been built by men, for men. It seems that the qualities by which you are assessed would stereotypically be classified as ‘male’ qualities. These include, for example, high self-esteem, competitiveness and assertiveness. However, being a scientist and a group leader requires more skills, such as being able to mentor others, motivate a lab, create a supportive environment and forming collaborations. To some extent, these qualities may be considered more feminine. These two different sets of qualities are not yet equally appreciated. However, I believe and hope that once men and women are equally represented, academia will benefit from a diverse range of skills and talents, which will improve both the working environment and the quality of scientific outputs. 

7. What is the importance of having female role models? Do you think there are enough female role models in science?

A role model is basically a person who can share their experience to aid others who are facing similar challenges. Since there are endless types of challenges in science, and many ways of approaching them, I think we should all have as many male and female role models as possible, with different qualities. This way, you can take what suits you from each role model, and learn from the different perspectives that different people have. I’ve learned much from male role models, but even more so from female role models, as they faced situations that are unique to women. 

I have also found that people who are available for interaction are a better role model to me than those who are just influential. It is important to be approachable rather than just successful to be a role model, and in this sense, we should all consider ourselves as role models for others as we reach more advanced careers stages (relative to others). For example, I am happy that I can now be a role model to PhD students. 

8. What is your advice for women who are considering a career in science?

My advice is to maximise your fun and make sure you enjoy what you do. Create a suitable environment for you to work in. If the environment isn’t right for you, then you are not at the right place. Find the right colleagues, create collaborations and be inspired by them. Don’t be afraid, don’t think you are not as good because you are a woman or a mother or for any other reason – you are! Build on your strengths, support others and celebrate success.  

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